So as you may have seen last week, I was on my annual pilgrimage to Indiana for a full week of hardcore gaming with my boys. The ‘Week 2012’ included several games like AD&D 1E, Deadlands D20, Stars Without Number, and even a go at Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds: Tour of Darkness, which was outstanding.
My responsibility during the week was to DM what is considered our ‘super campaign’ which will take up to five full days of gaming. At a bit over 14 hours a day, that equates to roughly 70 hours behind the DM screens (this week I was enticed to do 6 days and 84 hours). To do this I’ve got to come up with an original idea, typically something that will throw the players for a loop, and certainly hold their attention as we move through an epic tale of adventure.
This year, as I sat staring at my shelves of RPG books, I couldn’t help but keep coming back to the old AD&D 2nd Edition campaign setting, Spelljammer. Now Spelljammer was an interesting and inherently simple idea, take D&D and put it in space. To do this, the development team found a way to make fantasy ships fly through space while they explored worlds around the base worlds TSR had created through the 1980s like Krynn, Greyhawk, and the Forgotten Realms.
Back in the day, I’d played Spelljammer no more than three or four times on mini-adventures with my most famous elven thief, Sefron Silvershoe. Thus, my DM, Mark, dubbed the game ‘Sefron in Space’ to be funny. Because of our devotion to Forgotten Realms and other science fiction games like Paladium’s Robotech, Spelljammer didn’t stick and we quickly went back to other things.
Early in 2011, however, Jeff Laubenstein and I were doing a comic for Wizards of the Coast and in one scene we gave a shout out to the classic Star Frontiers cover by Larry Elmore in which we had a Spelljammer vessel crashed on a planet instead of a classic spaceship. That little strip got me to thinking about Spelljammer once more and later in the year when I founded the Fans of the Art of Jeff Easley page on Facebook, a few hardcore Spelljammer fans appeared to sing the praises of Jeff’s cover for the game’s initial boxed set release.
Once again, Spelljammer was on my mind, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I fully accepted the hand of destiny concerning the reanimation of Spelljammer when I discovered Paizo’s Distant Worlds supplement that detailed the solar system around Golarion in the exact same fashion as was found in the old Spelljammer sets.
James Sutter had penned the Distant Worlds supplement, and I most highly recommend it to anyone who would like to throw a curveball to their players. He brings in some really intriguing settings that can be very easily visited by use of portals and there is no doubt that it helps open players’ eyes to the infinite possibilities of a more expanded universe.
Anyway, once I saw Distant Worlds, I took down my Spelljammer collection and began going over it once more. The initial cover, as stated above, was done by Jeff Easley. When I was putting together Jeff’s art book, I came across a picture of Jeff actually painting this cover, so I’d had a bit of nostalgia already brewing concerning it. I well remember when I first saw it, and was completely taken by the incredibly beauty of the red-haired elf, the power of the noble knight, and the darkness of the Illithid who sit upon an asteroid while a shadowed elven ship fades into the starscape behind them.
As Jeff always managed to do in his cover work from the 1980s, he creates a scene that is impossible for the viewer not to want to be a part of. However, as much as Jeff’s cover impacted gamers at the point of sale, it was really the incredible work of Jim Holloway that gave the game a very distinct flavor as he did every other piece of art in the initial box. [Note: Brom’s first cover work for TSR came on a Spelljammer supplement]
Holloway, who is known for humor, tones it down to a more serious note in the two interior volumes, both with spectacular color covers. Inside, his black and white illustrations sing with high adventure of the space lanes, and his standard 1980s oval-faced and small breasted women define his magnificent muse for that era.
Above all this, however, his ship designs are what make Spelljammer happen. Holloway, for all the flack he’s taken over the years, most assuredly takes his place as a true industry icon for his work on this game alone. From Elven Armadas to Hammerships, to Illithid Nautiloids, the scope of his incredible mind plays out in unreal detail among these ships.
Going through the pages of ship designs, color artwork, and incredible gaming concepts of just how a Spelljammer vessel works in a galaxy devoid of oxygen, I couldn’t help but feel this was my chance to make a tale that was truly memorable.
However, I no longer played 2nd Edition D&D, and I’d already been on the hook for a 1E AD&D original dungeon adventure to be played on Saturday, so I needed to find another system that would work. Since my current gaming world had transitioned to Pathfinder in 2009, I sat down with a notebook and started making conversions for a campaign I entitled PathJammer Reloaded.
It was an awesome experience, and the Pathfinder rules, now holding hardcover expansions like Advanced Players Guide, Ultimate Arcane, and Ultimate Combat, gave me a vast resource line to begin creating a fresh and full solar system around my venerable Nameless Realms.
The process was somehow cathartic, new races, storylines, and an underlying current of Tolkien-inspired nobility ran through my notes as I’d just completed reading his masterwork, The Silmarillion. I detailed prophecy that spoke of the Five Princes of Nimbar, Varuun the Interloper of Shadow, and a series of interpretive sub-prophecy ‘drams’ called the Emerald Cascade.
My players, all happy and prepared to play their 1st level characters to go dungeon running, were stupefied when Neogi slavers and their Umberhulk thralls showed up and stole them from their home planet. Now that is a way to pull the rug out from under comfortable gamers, and on top of that take all their weapons and equipment so that those first level feats no longer apply. Evil DM indeed, and I certainly got many curses for my efforts.
Nonetheless, the success of Pathjammer was unmatched, and my old school players devoured it with such ferocity that they added two extra days of playing until the bulk of their characters ended out the week with 14 levels of hard-won experience, which isn’t a bad run in the new world order of post 2nd Edition advancement.
I was able to describe Miyazaki-like worlds of white towers and gold-sailed windmills, waterworlds with planer rifts larger than continents that spilled thunderous mile-deep waterfalls into their depths, World-of-Warcraft inspired violet fungal forest planets filled with voracious and carnivorous plants, and ice shards inhabited by great wyrms of absolute frost. I mean, with Pathjammer, the possibilities are endless, and as my players were apt to say after every encounter, “That wasn’t a goblin, that was a SPACE goblin, and adding SPACE to any creature makes it 10x cooler!” Indeed, with SPACE Pirates, Liches, Dragons, Giants, Assassin Vines, etc, you can imagine the fun that was had by all.
In my mind’s eye, the images of each encounter were made all the more vivid with Holloway’s art, and I wondered what a true Pathjammer Easley/Holloway collaboration would look like today. Certainly I’d be first in line to buy such a product … now to see if WotC would part with the license for a couple of years
If you like what you read in Art of the Genre, you can listen to me talk about publishing and my current venture with great artists of the fantasy field here or even come say hello on Facebook here.